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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Jay Leno on car chase films...

I grew up in a small town in New England and there weren’t many cool cars: there were just cars that had cool things on them. Much in the way that when you come to Hollywood you see beautiful women all in one package but when you grow up in a small town you kind of have to build them yourself – take her hair and her face and marry them to those legs and that body.

The things I thought were cool were odd. I remember in 1962  Pontiac came up with an eight-lug wheel. It was a beautifully styled wheel but it had eight lug nuts. Now, my mum’s Ford Falcon only had four nuts, and my dad’s Ford Galaxie was a V8 and had five nuts, but this had eight! If you get a chance to Google it, do. It’s a beautiful wheel, with a finned brake drum behind it.

Seat belts were never cool until the bad guys in Bullitt buckled up. When the bad guys realized Steve McQueen was on their tail they reached down and you could hear that solid CLICK as they pulled the belt tight. That probably got more teenagers to belt up than any other safety campaign.

Bullitt is right up there as one of the coolest car movies ever. Unlike the ridiculous The Fast and the Furious movies that are out now. In the old days in a car movie, the car never did anything it couldn’t do in real life. Sure, it might be a stunt, but the car actually had to do it.

I just saw the new Fast and Furious, the fourth one, and it is ridiculous. They are in a truck, flip it and put it in reverse and then pass the guy doing a hundred. Like, in a truck! It’s impossible and it’s obvious it’s CGI. It can’t be done.

Another thing about Bullitt. I knew Bud Ekins and Bud was cool. He was the guy who fell off the motorcycle and slid it past the gas station. He did it without a helmet on. He just got on the bike and went down the road and then dropped it and slid it across the highway. No trick, no CGI, no rubber road… just him sliding along the road. He also did the jump in The Great Escape.He was Steve McQueen’s driver and stunt man.

Steve McQueen was a great driver in his own right and did do some driving scenes. I met him a number of times, though I can’t say I knew him well. It was in the early ’70s. He knew I was a car guy and a motorcycle guy so we had something in common.

A moment I remember being cool was the first time I saw a speedo that read to 160. It was on an early Corvette, I think a ’62. When you are a teenager, you always assume that whatever the speedometer will go to is the top speed of the car.

I remember seeing this Corvette. It was red with white side scoops. I think it was a 327. Looking in to see the number ONE-SIX-OH… that was, Oh my God. A hundred and sixty. That was at the time when most American cars could barely break 100 or 105.

It was the same with bikes. The Vincent Black Shadow’s speedo (which was enormous – six inches across, stood upright and visible from 50 feet) went to 150. That was the ultimate. One time I was riding my Vincent Black Shadow. I had it straight up at 100-105. Whooo, Whooo; I get pulled over by the cops. The cop says, ‘Do you know how fast you were going? One-oh-five.’ I say,

‘I don’t think so.’ But he pointed and said, ‘I got it off YOUR speedometer..!’

That was cool.

Another sight that’s cool is looking in the cockpit of a Shelby Cobra or a 289 Mustang and seeing that hook-backwards gearshift on the Ford four-speed with the lockout. I remember thinking that was the coolest piece of bent metal I’d ever seen. Even more than James Dean’s Porsche – but that was before my time.

In terms of the coolest car I have, that would have to be one of two cars. First, the Shelby GT350 Mustang. To be cool a car’s got to have a mass appeal. Some people think Lamborghinis are cool but what makes a 350 cool is taking an ordinary production car and making it cool. That’s what makes it qualify. The English equivalent would be the Lotus Cortina.

The other coolest car would be the XKE, or E-type Jaguar. It’s a car that men like and women like and men like even more because women like it. So that makes it the coolest car in the world. Not just the male half of the world.

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